The “Fragrant Minutes” of Wilhelmina Stitch
Women and their Work
Sudden tragedy may crush and destroy, or it may bring out in the individual qualities of courage and fighting spirit which had lain latent and unsuspected. This story of a Canadian-trained woman journalist who countered Fate and won the move is an inspiration.
ELIZABETH BAILEY PRICE
THOUSANDS of English readers, during the past year, have become acquainted with Wilhelmina Stitch and her daily “fragrant minute,” which appears in the Daily Graphic. Hundreds of American readers have followed her daily “stitch” which was published in fifteen leading papers of United States for three years. Yet in Canada, where she began her journalistic work, the country that she called her home for fifteen years, but little is known of this versatile writer.
Only one paper, that of her home city. Winnipeg, took the daily stitch, and helped in a practical way to further and encourage the work of this earnest Canadian writer.
Considering this, one may truly quote the old adage: “A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” An English reader of the Daily Graphic writes:
“Many people thank God for a garden. I thank God for Wilhelmina Stitch, and the beautiful flow ers she lays on one’s breakfast table every morning. How wonderfully she lifts our drooping spirits with the touch of her magic wand, and we may smile in spite of ourselves.
“Possessing, as she does, the joyous ecstasy of a happy child, she rekindles the oft-times dormant spirit of hope in the hearts of those who are fortunate enough to read her fragrant lines.”
And every day Mrs.
Frank Collie (for that is her real name now) gets letters like that. During the eight months of the running of this daily feature in the Graphic, she has received six hundred letters from readers all over the world—over fifty from South Africa alone. In these are included expressions of appreciation from Queen Alexandra’s private secretary, at the request of Her Majesty, from the famous actress, Sybil Thorndike, the equally famous author, May Sinclair, from the brilliant pianist, Harriet Cohen and the famous cricketer, Jack Hobbs, who enclosed his autographed photograph.
What Her Work Has Brought
SHE has also received dozens of boxes of flowers from utter strangers all over England, an antique brooch from a jeweller, a tortoise shell trinket box from
a bereaved man comforted by her verse, a handkerchief made by the hands of a cripple whom she had cheered, several books and dozens of laudatory poems.
She had been parodied in the London Daily Mail and the Daily Express, by the. well-known humorist Wyndham Lewis, who called her “Solferino Snitch” and
“Georgina Gusset,” while in the last number oiGranta, the Cambridge University magazine, she is the subject of a skit.
She has been the guest of honor at the Lyceum Poetry Club, where she read her verses to a large and distinguished audience. A few days later the famous actress, Lilian Braithwaite, asked her to join her “All Star” performance in aid of the Nurse Cavell Homes of Rest, and again she read some of her verses to several thousand of people in the huge Palladium.
She has addressed seven hundred business men in the Mansion House, the Lord Mayor of London presiding, and has given readings at societies in three suburbs of London and at Cambridge. \ Two hospitals have asked permission to reprint two verses of hers as appeals, while the Institutes for the Blind, and the Deaf and Dumb, have also requested verses which might be used as appeals. A school of stenography uses her daily verse for its daily lesson in shorthand. A school performance included four of her verses recited by the children. A charity concert staged a “Fragrant Minute” tableau. The Viscountess Burham has asked for a copy of her “Empire Day” to read to the Girl Guides at their next rally.
She was one of the many guests who thronged the green salon, where Mr. and Mrs. Eustace Miles entertained the overseas journalists and other distinguished guests. Mrs. Miles asked her to read one of her verses. In introducing her the toastmaster said, “My lords, ladies and gentlemen— pray silence for Wil-Crimina Stitch.”
After her reading Professor Sorabgi, the lecturer, said: “I don’t like the possessive look on Dr. Collie’s face. He must remember that Wilhelmina Stitch belongs not to him alone, but to England, nay to the Empire, and since the Master of Ceremonies introduced her as Wilhel-mina Stitch, I think she belongs to a still wider Empire in distant parts.”
Wherever she goes some one or other says: "Oh, Wilhelmina Stitch! Are you really? I read your verses every day.” In February, Cassells brought out a chat, book, “The Fragrant Minute,” a selection of thirty-one verses. Twenty thousand copies have already been sold while another series is now under way.
How It Began
ALL this has happened in England to an absolutely unknown Canadiantrained journalist who just wrote her verses and posted them in October, 1924, to theGraphic, an English “picture paper" with a weekly edition that travels to every
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corner of the British Empire. Next day a verse appeared on the editorial page, and she was given a month’s contract to see “if they could catch on.” In three days they had “caught on” to such an extent that she was asked to sign up for a year.
So many letters did the editor receive that three months later, he deemed this feature of sufficient importance to devote the entire front page to her picture, space hitherto reserved for royalty, or such celebrities as “Mr. A—the Indian Prince.”
Wilhelmina Stitch, or Ruth Jacobs, was born in Cambridge, England, in 1889, within sight of the willow tree under which Chaucer sat and composed his immortal lines, near to the Old Granary, also immortalized by the artist, Sir Joseph Harker. Her mother founded the first choral society in Cambridge, which is still in existence, and her name, Mrs. Josephine Jacobs, is mentioned in this connection in the archives. Thus from her earliest years she came in contact with studious minds.
Perhaps the greatest factor in the effect of environment upon her mental development was the removal of the family to London, when her father went into the book business. They lived above the book shop on the Edgeware Road, near the Marble Arch. Each day this little girl walked through the book store and on her return from school found an excuse to loiter, so that she might perchance gaze on Chesterton’s corpulence beneath his weird havelock, or at Israel Zangwill’s unique ugliness that was more impressive than a handsome face. Even in that little book shop with no audience but her father, his rapier-iike wit flashed back and forth. One afternoon he stayed for tea. He put his left hand into the sugar basin and took out three lumps.
“What terrible manners,” thought the small girl.
Many other interesting personalities came to the little book store, for her father became noted for his rare and first editions, and for his collection of Oscar Wilde. Among these visitors were Claude Askew, the noted author, Samuel Gordon and Eyres Hussy.
There was a circulating library in connection with the business, and little Ruth Jacobs read constantly. At the age of nineteen she was better versed in English literature than many a graduate who had spent years preparing for his M.A. degree. Hers was not an academic training, but a result of an insatiable appetite for reading. The supply was always there, and the intimate scholarly friends of her parents were eager to replenish it at all times.
Coming to Canada
SHE left training school in 1908, in June, was married in August, and came to Winnipeg a bride of nineteen. She had been utterly dependent on her mother all her life for all her existence, outside of the life of the spirit and imagination. She had never even bought a pair of gloves for herself, and at the time thought it awfully jolly to be married, so that she could wear a veil with her hats, drink coffee for breakfast, and be known as Mrs. Cohen instead of Miss Jacobs. She had been brought up after the manner of a cultured English girl of her day. She had never been out alone, had never been to a dance or with a crowd of young people. The concerts, operas and theatres she had attended were mostly “treats” given by her mother. She didn’t know how to cook or sew. But she did know a lot about books and great pictures of the world, and could recite poetry by the yard.
Her first literary efforts were begun when she was twenty-three years old, and her baby three. They were books of reviews, her ideas of the books she found truly beautiful. Money was the last consideration, and she thought it wonderful to earn five dollars a week. She had no trouble about “getting into print” for she had taken infinite pains in writing her reviews, and she gave them to the local papers for nothing, under the nom de plume of Shiela Rand.
From 1914 to 1918 she turned out what she called a lot of ephemeral stuff for local newspapers. She says:
“Sometimes I was paid, and sometimes not. The things I liked best, lyrics, were never paid for. A local paper paid me a
weekly sum, princely it seemed to me then, for supplying it with a woman’s page, book reviews, an original page story usually humorous, and two other features which I called ‘Rhymes of the Times’ and ‘Mother Goose’s Sermons.’ This was turned out week by week, and never was there a prouder moment, than when, out of my earnings, I bought my husband a set of Jowett’s edition of Plato’s works. I bad promised him this gift before we were married. The books were to be tied to the long tail of a white Arabian steed, but the horse was still beyond my means. How long I might have contributed every ounce of mental effort to that local paper I know not, had not Fate intervened!
“AN THE very day that we were planning book shelves for the library in our new home, my husband died. He was cutting the pages of ‘The Folk Lore of the Old Testament,’ a gift to him out of my journalistic earnings, when he suddenly died.”
So tragedy came. Her son was barely nine. She had not a relative in the whole of Canada. She had to make a living in earnest; not just a little pocket money, but enough to educate a boy and keep up a house. She was suddenly flung from the sheltered life of a wife and mother, who depended tremendously upon her husband for mental companionship, material wants and many things that most women would have done for themselves, but which partly due to her upbringing, and partly to what she terms a “weak streak” in herself, she had left to him.
Most folk’s struggles begin with looking for a job, but hers was in keeping it. She was offered one at once by the manager of the city advertising of the T. Eaton Company, who had watched her work on the local paper. She accepted it immediately and went to work one week after her husband’s funeral. She knew nothing about advertising, nothing about store life, nor had she ever been disciplined to hours. During that first twelve months of her newly constructed life, she had much to learn. She had to learn first her craft. This meant nights of work at a correspondence course, a heavy but valuable undertaking. She had to adjust herself in a huge business concern, that would not make exceptions for an untrained woman.
She had to learn what a mortgage on a house meant, what taxes mean, what it is to keep up insurance, how many tons of coal the furnace burned and many more problems. She was anxious to give her boy a real home, one with beautiful surroundings, to keep him at St. John’s College, and give him all the extras, such as special boxing and fencing lessons for his health’s sake. She supervised his homework nightly and on Sundays taught him Hebrew and the Bible.
A long Struggle
“TT WAS a continuous struggle,” she
Jsaid, “and thundering hard work, my days averaging fifteen hours steady brain work. However, being suddenly dependent upon myself, turned me from an inconsequential female to an independent woman. Through my work I learned that education didn’t count as much as I thought it did; that there is joy, laughter, humor and tenderness to be derived from any kind of daily occupation, if one keeps one’s heart functioning; that most of all the one thing that counts in this world is courage and the ability to keep smiling when one’s heart is weeping.”
Her advertising work was unique. It consisted of reviews of books, rhymed reviews, the special toy advertising, which had to be made as original and creative a piece of work as any feature story of the paper, this mostly done in rhyme, and other special advertising writing. In six years she became an expert.
At this time the “daily stitch,” short verse about the every day human and homely incidents and feelings of life, signed by Wilhelmina Stitch, came into being, and appeared in a local paper. This formed the one emotional and creative outlet in the author’s tremendously busy life. They were accepted by the Metropolitan Syndicate, and released in fifteen American papers.
Her rhymed reviews also brought
letters of heartening praise from Eden Phillpotts, May Sinclair, Handing Garland, Bertha Ruck, Joseph Hergesheimer, Ernest Poole and other noted writers.
A New Era
T N 1924 a publishing house in London 1 evinced an interest in a collection of her best “stitches,” and to see about this, after fifteen years absence, she returned to England. Here she renewed her friendship with Major Frank Collie, R.A.M.C., who had had a brilliant career in South Africa as head of the medical department in Natal. Major Collie had met her the summer before at the Lake of the Woods and fallen in love with her at first sight. He had urged her to return with him that fall, but went back to England without her. Two weeks after her arrival, in January, 1924, they were married.
During the remainder of 1924 she “freelanced” and was fairly successful. Ten weeks before Christmas she returned to the work she had specialized for six years, the writing of advertising copy in an entirely new vein for English readers. Harrods, a large departmental store of London, bought space in the three leading papers, and Mrs. Collie "told the world—as if over the teacups” about all the lovely, the new and interesting things that might be purchased at Harrods.
However, after Christmas, no longer needing this type of work for a livelihood and realizing that it had a fascination for her to the exclusion of other and more lasting work, she very definitely said goodbye to it and determined to devote her time to the “fragrant minutes” which have had such phenomenal success. The following example, Dream, Ships, which appeared in the London Graphic, might well be applied to its author’s own life, so apt it is:
Oh, where do all the Dream Ships go, the shipas that bravely went to sea, in happy days of long ago, when hearts fared forth courageously?
You must go somewhere, little ships. And while we wait for your return we grow so tired, so cold our lips, the flame of life doth weakly burn.
I launched my Dream Ship with a splash. I laughed to see the waves leap high—the heart of Youth is ever rash — 1 gaily waved a pleased good-bye. I said, “Next year my ship will sail into my waiting harbour heart.” Alas my little ship was frail and failed to reach fair Dreamland’s mart!
Each night I walked along the shore, and looked at Neptune’s wide domain; the circling gulls shrieked, “Nevermore! Your Dream Ship comes not back again.”
“We’ll look no more,” said Weary Eyes. Said Weary Heart, “Those gulls spoke true,” and then to my intense surprise—■ my little ship sailed into view!